14 Observations on Iranian culture and society (part 2)

Kandovan, Iran (1) - political propaganda - header

We have recently spent a month in Iran, couchsurfing, hitchhiking and interacting with the locals as much as possible. It would be a huge overstatement, however, to say we are experts on Iranian culture. These are just our subjective observations and we would be very curious to hear what you think.

Read the previous post, were we included points 1-7

Iranian culture and society

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Drinking alcohol is for many Iranians also a way of opposing the oppressive regime. Others do it by living a second secret life called “white marriage” (they might still live with their parents but also have a second house where they would meet their secret partner). Some girls oppose the system by wearing make-up or bright clothes and not tightening their hijab.

Most of people we have spoken to realise they live under a dictatorial rule and would be happy to live in a more liberal/western society. One thing they do not realise, however, is the fact that their ‘government’ has very little to say and it’s rather the Religious Leader who they should be in opposition against.

Kandovan, Iran (1) - political propaganda

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Although they realise that the system they live in is oppressive, most of them see nothing wrong in the segregation the whole society has been subjected to. Let me give you some examples of segregation we spotted while in the country:

Every women is obliged to wear a hijab, a long garment covering her bum and make sure that her arms or legs are not showing even in the most oppresive heat. This rule applies also to female tourists!

– On public transport (city bus/metro) there are separate compartments for men and women. It doesn’t matter that women are usually cramped on buses and sometimes even can’t get in while men sit comfortably or that the same thing happens on the Tehran metro but to men. There are even posters on the walls showing a man who fell asleep on a woman’s shoulder with all the other girls around her looking terrified (!).

Men and women can’t go to the swimming pool together. There are separate times for both genders.

Women cannot ride bicycles, roller-blade or ice-skate. Don’t ask me why, but apparently it’s un-Islamic.

Women can’t sing and dance in public. There are no modern female singers or dancers that would be allowed to express their art within the country. However, most people still listen to old time female divas, like Googoosh or Homeyra and to attend female singer concerts they have to go abroad.

The sad thing is that many Iranians see nothing wrong in segregation. Some girls we have spoken to told us they feel that segregated buses and metro keep women safe from harassment from men. Asked what type of harassment the had in mind, they usually named ‘offensive looks’ although they still wore heavy make-up (why do it if you don’t like men looking at you?!). We just couldn’t understand the over-protection of one gender and demonisation of the other.

Yazd, Iran (42) - old Iranian door knockers

In the old days they used different knockers for men and women and they produced a distinct sound so people inside would know if a man or woman is coming.

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The fact that all women are obliged to cover their bodies is a huge factor in why so many of them are obsessed with what their faces look like. Iranian women are known to use tons of make-up and the country has been named the ‘Plastic Surgery Capital of the World’. It’s believed that every year as many as 200,000 women (even as young as 14 year old) visit a cosmetic surgeon in order to achieve a desired look. Locals joke that Iran is a country of beautiful parents and ugly children as it’s common to see stunning doll-like mothers surrounded by their ugly ducklings.

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One thing you should definitely learn about before visiting the country is the importance of tarof. It’s a very important element of Persian etiquette (strongly linked with Persian hospitality) that requires the host to offer anything a guest may want and at the same time obliging the guest to refuse it. Imagine you are being invited to somebody’s house and you compliment their carpet. Your Iranian host would very likely ask you if you’d like to take the carpet home. You are then expected to reject the offer. Your host may insist (even several times) but both parties are supposed to understand that it’s only a manifestation of good manners.

Exercising tarof with foreigners leads, however, to many misunderstandings as Westerners are more direct than Iranian people and expect the offer to be genuine (feeling disappointed if it isn’t). On the other hand, Iranians might feel that we are rude to them not rejecting their tarof offers.

On the very personal note, there were many situations when we hated tarof when our hosts offered to do something for us (e.g. take us somewhere) and then expected us not to hold them to the promise. Many times we were let down as we believed we were promised things (which we could easily have done ourselves if we had been allowed to) only to spend a long time waiting for things that would never happen in the end.

Yazd, Iran (79) - with our friends in Yazd

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And the last thing you will very quickly notice while in the country (but you should mentally prepare yourself for) is the fact that Iranians love driving! And when I say they love driving, I mean they are f*&$#g obsessed by it! Everyone owns a car in Iran, petrol is cheap and they wouldn’t walk anywhere. They even have no concept of how far things are. It is crazy how much they drive even for pleasure. For most Europeans, getting into a car is a necessity, you do it only if you really need to get somewhere far. For a typical Iranian it is often a way of relaxing or spending time when they are bored.

Once after a lovely evening with our friends we were packed into a car and driven around the same streets for an hour or so. We started to lose our patience and asked our friend where the hell we were going and he just answered: “We are just driving around to spend some nice time with you”

During our stay in Iran we spent half of our time in people’s cars, and that’s not only the fact that we are hitchhikers. Most of our hosts felt a strong urge to drive us everywhere, even around a block, several times!

I’ve read somewhere that Iranians love spending time in taxis as this is when they feel they are not being listened to by the government (and it’s bugs). My theory is that they love driving for the same reason as this is when they are away from their wives, mothers or bugged offices and they can be their true selves.

Iranian man in a car

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Sharing is a very important element of Persian culture. As I have mentioned before, Iranians are extremely hospitable and they love giving and sharing food. If there are five Iranians, one apple and no knife,you can be sure they would find a way to divide it equally between friends.

It was important to learn about this cultural imperative, as while hitchhiking we made sure we shared everything we had with our drivers and they were always utterly pleased.

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Persians are in general a very relaxed nation, they don’t worry too much about petty things and their concept of time is very different to the Western one. Let me give you an example. During our stay in Shiraz we couchsurfed with an Iranian friend who gave private Maths classes. It wasn’t uncommon for him to be late for his lessons and let his student wait even 45 min! We are teachers too and in Europe that would mean losing your customers, but he didn’t care and his students apparently didn’t either.

In Iran you will often hear people say veleshko, which is the equivalent of ‘never mind’, ‘don’t worry’ or ‘whatever’. One of our Iranian friend said once he could make a lot of money being a psychologist in Europe and helping all the stressed out people, just by teaching them veleshko.

Iranian man with rings, Zanjan, Iran

written by: Ania

Have you been to Iran? Do you have Iranian friends? Are you Iranian yourself? What do you think of this article? Do you agree/disagree? What things have you noticed about Iranian people?


 

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30 comments

  • How fascinating! Thank you for a look into a culture and behaviors that many Westerners will never see due to restrictions. Some of the things you mentioned are cultural norms in other Middle Eastern countries as well. When I first encountered certain beliefs, it was hard for me to refrain from pointing out they were illogical to the Western mind, particularly when it came to segregation of women.

    • Iran is not as closed a country as many people believe and most Westerners can travel there freely. There is even a way for British, American and Canadian citizens to enter the country without having a guide or an organised tour (which we will describe in detail in our next post).

  • This is a very enlightening read. I’ve never been in Iran and as a woman have been a little afraid to go. These cultural norms seem so different to us Westerners, it would be an interesting visit I’m sure. Safe travels!

  • This is REALLY interesting! As a family of three, though, I’m not sure how I would feel about the segregation. Wearing hijab to be respectful is one thing but traveling without my husband in a different car on the metro is another. Or swimming in a pool for that matter.

    • Yes, this was the most annoying and hard to accept part of their culture. And what surprised us the most was the fact that many Iranian women were in support of segregation, reasoning that if you let men be in the same metro compartment or swimming pool they would all turn into groping and harassing beasts :/

    • You don’t have to be in a separate car. They segregate public transportation and public pools!
      Maybe it is not that common to find a private family pool for a nonIranian, but for sure you can hitchhike, get a taxi or rent a car with your family.

  • What an interesting visit and look at the culture and beliefs to the Persians – to understand and observe a way of life in a new country that is typically not on the radar of many travelers is quite eye opening.

  • I haven’t been to Iran, so your article helped me to understand the culture a bit better. I need to learn to use the word veleshko. I’m working on “whatever” being my new motto.

  • Interesting post. I plan on visiting Iran one day soon so it’s good to know a little cultural advice before I go.

  • I found the discussion of tarot most interesting. I would think it would be difficult to know when people were offering something that was expected to be received, rather than refused!

  • It’s good for all of us to realize that different countries just have different cultures, beliefs and ways of life and it’s not necessarily better or worse. It’s just life. I really appreciate that you put together this post so we can get a glimpse into another world.

  • Very interesting–I always love learning about different cultures. Interacting with locals when traveling is such a great way to get a peek inside of a new culture–thanks for sharing!

  • yes…. im not sure the clock is a necessary thing to have in Iran. love these posts. Oh how they love to drive! at 160 km/h in old worn out cars!

  • Can’t get over things like this:
    Women cannot ride bicycles, roller-blade or ice-skate.

    Seriously.

  • Accurate observations! It’s amazing how concisley you could demonstrate these contrasts. The way I see it, is that being showy in general is a main trend, esp in bigger cities in Iran. It can be Tarof or make ups, plastic surgery or hanging out with car for hours or as simple as asking you to join their english course or showing a strong opinion about all political affairs including the big brother britain. And unfortuantely it’s more in the young generation, I’m not sure if it’s an emergent characteristic of a society in transition or it has deep roots in the culture.

  • I have to mention some facts regarding you review:
    First, skating and riding a bicycle IS NOT forbidden for women in Iran as my sister did a lot of skating and I see everyday lots of girls running and exercising and even playing badminton, volley ball or ping pong with their male friend/ family members.
    Segregation is NOT a part of Iranian culture. Yes in some cases it is a law, but just in some cases. Also, as an Iranian, I see a very minority of women supporting the forced hijab law, and being a governmental law is different from being a part of a country’s culture.

  • You have obviously missed a large part of Iran youth society and their free relations including girl/boy relations which is changing very fast in the recent years.

    • Hi Kamyar, thanks a lot for taking the time to comment and sharing your views. Firstly, we would like to point out that of course what we have written are just our subjective impressions and we could only base our observations on what we experienced. That is not to say they are 100% correct and we would never claim to be experts on a culture we only saw for 1 month. This being said however, when we tried to go ice skating, Ania wasn’t allowed to, this is not an opinion but a fact. Furthermore, although you are probably correct to say that segregation is not part of everybody’s culture the fact that it is the law in many cases (trains, buses etc..) is something that we in Europe are not used to and a valid observation I feel. Lastly, of course you are right that not all women support the forced hijab law and I don’t think we argued that at all in the post. We spoke with many women who saw it as ridiculous and who would love to not have to wear them at all. I hope that this explains our text somewhat but if you have any further observations please feel free to comment further!

  • Another thing good to know for foreigners who are visiting Iran is that you can always ask for discount (Takhfif) when you want to buy something. negotiating is part of Iranian culture so you can enjoy good discounts by asking for Takhfif and negotiating on a price for a short while ;)

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